This article was first published in the Oxford Student newspaper.
Ed Miliband’s rhetoric at the Labour conference last week was bold and inspiring. The real surprise though, considering the track record of politicians, is that he seems to be acting by his principles. Having accused David Cameron of being ‘strong when it comes to the weak’ yet ‘weak when it comes to the strong,’ Miliband has now confronted the Daily Mail, Britain’s second most influential newspaper, and a formidable force in society. If leading Conservatives wanted proof that Miliband isn’t a ‘weak’ leader, they now have it.
The dispute arose after the newspaper attacked Miliband’s father, Ralph, in an article entitled ‘The man who hated Britain.’ The piece draws illogical claims from sparse evidence, and relies on the usual Daily Mail prejudice – deploying facts about Ralph like slurs, referring to the fact that the ‘immigrant boy’ was originally called ‘Adolphe’ in a comparison to Hitler’s name. It is typical of the Mail’s portrayal of people as binary, good or evil characters to define Ralph’s entire ideology by a single diary entry, written when he was only 17 years old – before the age we even judge people as competent to vote.
The article goes on to question the integrity of his beliefs, suggesting that his socialism lacked sincerity because his sons ‘went to the ‘Establishment’ Oxford University’, conveniently omitting the fact that they both did so via a comprehensive state education. It is clear that the Mail had no respect for the truth or a fair portrayal of the man, and instead grabbed at information before moulding it into an article so determined to defend apparent pseudo-British principles, which actually resonated as bigotry dressed as patriotism. Even an ex-Cabinet minister to Margaret Thatcher has accused the Mail of ‘telling lies’ in order to ‘make political points.’
As well as being misrepresentative, the article infringed on common decency. Originally, it was published online with a picture of Ralph Miliband’s tombstone, which it captioned with the pun that Miliband was a ‘grave socialist.’ Jokes like this are surely uncalled for, and reduce an article, already lacking credibility, into a mockery.
But what is even more insidious is the motivation behind the article’s publication. Underlying the entire piece was the curious suggestion that even if a single diary entry is enough to determine Ralph’s views, because of this, Ed Miliband is any less credible. Areas of the press have claimed that because Ed has spoken about being inspired by his father, it is now acceptable to judge him by every single one of his father’s politics.
Is it not possible to cite somebody as an inspiration without becoming their political clone? The vast majority of Britons are inspired by their parents in many ways, whilst also disagreeing with them on other issues or principles. It seems that the Mail has a dogged inability to understand that people, although sharing common characteristics, are diverse and different. The newspaper has a history of trying to divide sections of society into categories, before depicting them as homogeneous groups. Whether it be Muslims, immigrants or benefit claimants, it appears that the next target of this slapdash stereotyping is socialists, and in particular the Miliband family. Regardless, the claim that Ed can’t be inspired by his Dad without becoming a political duplicate of him seems frankly bizarre.
Moreover, even if Ed’s beliefs may share principles with Marxism, this hardly warrants the association with the evils that took place under Stalin’s rule, which the newspaper is so keen to point to. Using this regime as an argument against Ed Miliband is no more logical than accusing all Volkswagen fans (a Nazi creation) of anti-Semitic tendencies. The Mail’s guilt by association argument is just another illogical indictment designed to debate anything but policy.
Ed Miliband’s demand for a right of reply was a bold move, not to be taken lightly; he would, after all, be making enemies with the second most read newspaper in Britain, and the most visited news website in the world. But so strong was Miliband’s claim that even political rivals David Cameron and Nick Clegg have lent their support. Admittedly, it’s a shame that Ed relied on military service to defend his father’s character, playing to the populist obsession with the armed forces that the Mail so readily propagates. Instead, I would’ve hoped that his contribution to academia, for instance, would’ve been enough to make the argument that Ralph enriched British culture, without the need to wield a gun. Nonetheless, Ed’s response is a bold, and justified defence of his father.
Unfortunately, some have tried to hijack the debate in order to win political capital. Michael Gove chose to warp the debate into one about regulation of a free press, despite Miliband’s clear assurance that ‘this is not about regulation.’ Yet Gove has still succeeded in setting the debate in many media reports.
The situation took another personal toll on Miliband, as it was revealed that two journalists from the Mail had gate-crashed a private memorial service of his relative in order to find a story to rubbish his name further. It is clear that despite a phone hacking scandal and a lengthy enquiry, some journalists are still entirely incompetent in knowing the boundaries of what is ethically acceptable.
It is this commitment to responsible conduct that the press still seem to so obviously lack – one Mail columnist recently justified the Mail’s actions to pointing at the hypocritical left ‘who danced on the grave of Mrs Thatcher.’ When the second most read newspaper in Britain justifies its conduct by comparing itself to the actions of a collection of radical protestors, it is clear something has to change. But it is only when public figures like Ed Miliband confront such influential media organisations that any change will become possible. Whatever you think of Miliband, is it not finally time for our press to acknowledge that with great power and influence comes great responsibility?